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Lecture 14 The Perfect as Spiritual Process

Lecture 14
The Perfect as Spiritual Process
Conclusions as to natural evil.
AT the close of our last lecture we were considering the sceptical objections which are drawn from the existence of natural evil. We concluded primarily that natural events and facts cannot as such be called either good or bad. Their value is conditional and derivative. It depends on the contribution they make to the moral well-being of man. Secondly as to the relation between moral behaviour and temporal and natural prosperity we maintained (a) that as right conduct means the best use of natural circumstance and as the best use involves a right understanding there does exist a necessary connection; that is to say natural well-being does follow right behaviour and disaster dogs the footsteps of the ill-doer. (b) To the objection that these results often appear only in “the long run” I answered that “a thunder-clap”—or immediate consequence—would obscure the moral issues which are primary and should be recognized as such. The postponement and indirectness of the natural consequences and their falling frequently not on the doer of the deed but on those connected with him and on the other hand the immediacy and inevitability of the moral improvement or self-degradation favours this recognition. (c) Finally to the objection that it is wholly unjustifiable that one man should do the wrong thing and another suffer the consequence or that one man should do the right thing and another reap the advantage we replied by referring to the same principle namely that it favours morality. Everything favours morality which involves the life of all in the life of each and the welfare of each in the well-being of all. To learn goodness men must be members of one another and if they are members of one another they must share the same destiny.

Thus it seems strict fidelity to the view that the purpose of man's life and of the world is moral (or spiritual) progress meets the difficulties of the existence of natural evil. And possibly the most effective and convincing way of proving this were to consider the consequences that would accrue if all natural evil were abolished and if men did not suffer at all whether from their own actions or from the actions of others. Devotion to pleasure in a beer and skittles environment does not seem likely to conduce to spiritual endeavour.

Moral good and evil cannot be regarded as means and they present graver difficulties.
But the solution of the difficulty of natural evil namely that it is a means to a further good and in truth has no intrinsic value or character of its own—that solution is wholly inapplicable to moral evil. Moral values are final. In this spiritual region as I have already insisted we are dealing with that which is in itself good or bad. What is morally right respects and what is morally wrong violates a principle that is absolute. A morally wrong action cannot like a natural misfortune be made a stepping-stone or an instrument of well-being. In the spiritual sense the character of the act as it stands is final and irremediable. And the question we have to answer is: How if God is verily perfect in power and goodness the existence of moral evil can be accounted for. That moral evil of all kinds and degrees of enormity exists at all stages of human civilization cannot be denied. Must we not therefore limit the range and moderate the confidence of our religious faith? Must not the existence of God and his power and goodness be denied or what is virtually the same thing must we not consider him incapable of coping with the evil of the world?
A static world leaves no room for either moral good or moral evil.
Once more our answer must depend upon the standard of values which we employ. We have stated that the standard must be moral or spiritual; but no explanation of the meaning of these terms has been given. On what grounds or for what reason is an action or an individual approved or disapproved morally? What is it that constitutes its good or its evil? What kind of a world would that be which were perfect in the changeless sense? Would it offer to anyone the opportunity of doing any good action? Would there be anything of which we could say that it “ought to be” and which invited the choice and decision of a good will? So far as I can see the call of duty would not be heard in such a world. The good man could sit down with his hands in its lap and at best idly contemplate the past. All action would in fact be wrong. It would take away from the changeless perfection which all alike have as a matter of course. In one word such a world would not be moral or spiritual at all. The enterprise of morality would not exist.
Are static conceptions applicable to anything that is real?
The answer of science as to physical facts.
The conception of static perfection in matters of the mind and spirit will not bear examination. The difficulties of attributing any other kind of perfection than that which is static to the deity are very great—possibly insuperable; but that static categories can be applied to man a finite being the law of whose life is change and progress it is not possible to maintain. Can they in the last resort be applied to any finite object? Is fixity changelessness true of anything even in the natural sphere. That life when it appears increases the range and significance of change is obvious. Life is always renewing itself and affirming itself in fresh ways as its circumstances alter. The objects of the inorganic world are relatively fixed. However true it may be that
“An active principle…
In all things”
that principle is less active in inanimate objects than in living beings. But even in the former there is no static fixity. Science teaches us that objects are the temporary meeting-places or foci of different kinds of physical energy. The weight the colour the softness or hardness—all the qualities of a stone are its responses to other objects or its interaction with them. It is what it does. Its apparently static or fixed character is due to the fact that its activities are reiterative or repetitive. We do not expect a stone to break into flower in spring any more than we expect a plant not to change with the seasons although we do expect it to reflect the rays of light according to constant laws. Conceptions of fixity which are never strictly valid of any fact become less and less applicable as we ascend the scale of being. They mislead if strictly used when applied to plants or animals for the power of variation implied in their growth cannot be overlooked; but as we shall see they are least of all predicable of the facts of the life of spirit.
Process is universal.
Process implies both sameness and change.
This signifies that process is universal or that everything is in process. And usually this is taken to mean the same thing as that change is the law of things. But process implies sameness as well as change. An object owes its (apparently) separate or distinct being in virtue of which we can refer to it as an “it” to the sameness or continuity of the process which it carries on. After all the many are the different forms of the one. The physicist in the last resort considers that his task is to measure the transformations of the same ultimate energy. These transformations are the truth and the being of particular physical facts and so far as they go they manifest the nature of the ultimate reality.
The problem of the biologist is much more complex. Once life arises the variety of the activities increases; new functions are performed such as digestion; new relations and responses to the environment emerge; and that static sameness which with comparative truth we attribute to physical facts becomes quite false. At the same time a living thing affirms its unity unites the destiny of the parts with the whole and of the whole with the elements in a way to which there is nothing analogous in inorganic objects. Sensation intensifies the unity still further; and the unity culminates in self-consciousness. It is a great truth that integration and differentiation increase together. And it is borne out not only by the history of the biological kingdom but by that of mankind.
Spirit as double process: example (1) The community.
Now it is too obvious to need showing that these opposite but complementary processes culminate in the activity of spirit. The different stages of human civilization and of individual development exemplify this truth. Rudimentary civilization permits few social services and the bonds which connect its elements are very superficial. The Red Indian tribes were of little mutual help in times of peace and they easily fell into fighting. Their unity was slender and shallow and it usually lasted only so long as they fought side by side. Moreover the variety of functions which such communities could perform whether for each other or for their members was very limited. On the other hand it is difficult to estimate the variety of the interests of a civilized people or of the ways in which the weal of the citizen is either directly sought or protected by the State. From the cradle to the grave whether the individual be in poverty or in wealth the community serves him meeting all manner of needs. Its members on their part stand in their station fulfil the duties of it more or less adequately and offer each of them some single kind of return. But these kinds fit into each other. One man feeds the ox another kills and skins it a third curries the skin a fourth makes shoes of it; and there is between every pair of makers one whose business is to buy and sell. Other services less direct enter in. The merchandise has to be taken from one place to another; someone must have made the roads and someone else must have constructed the conveyances; still others must have dug up or grown the material out of which the conveyances are constructed; and all alike have entered into the inheritance of skill tradition beliefs which it has taken many ages to accumulate. Nothing in this world can show such diversity of interests or such a degree of differentiation of function as civilized society. And its unity corresponds. It is universal. We are all members of it and we come into touch with some of its activities at every turn of our lives. Its influence permeates all the lives of all its members. It is also intense that is to say its significance to the individual is immeasurable. We find that to sever man from society is to empty his life of all value and interest and to make him hopeless; while to break up the unity of a society is to do him the worst of all injuries. Civil war has before now proved the only available means of rectifying social wrongs; but it has also proved both the most costly and the most dangerous of remedies.
(2) The individual.
If we turn from the story of the community and its relation to its elements and consider the individuals which constitute it we shall find the same process with the same double aspect. Men differ from one another in all manner of ways: in strength of body and soul: in skill taste temperament interests purposes and character. No other beings of the same species differ so deeply or in so many qualities. Nevertheless as we have seen no animals unite so intimately as men do or in so many ways or for such permanent ends. Or again if we follow the story of the same individual from infancy to old age unless he has wronged himself his life has been one continuous and yet ever new and ever varying process. The variety of his interests has multiplied. His spirit is responsive to more truth and he is more sensitive to the forms of beauty and more sympathetic with the interests of his fellow-men; yet his aims have become more and more congruent his views more and more harmonious and his character has attained singleness and simplicity. Its unity has become more and more obvious.
The object is the process.
There can be no doubt I think of either the universality or the law of the process that is always going on in the natural world and in the soul of man. The next thing is to realize (what Nettleship so persistently accentuated) that the reality is the process and that there is no other reality except the reality which is active as the process. That a thing is what it does is a cardinal principle of philosophy and I make the less apology for recurring to it in that its significance is so far-reaching and has not so far been realized. It looks so simple. A thing that does nothing is nothing. Strip an object of its activities and see what remains: you will find nothing. Usually an object is given a more or less static character and none of its activities are marked except those which it exhibits in new relations; but the constitutive activities are the constant ones and the object has no permanence or reality save the constancy of the process.
The Universe then is not a unity of correlated and more or less fixed and separate objects but the scene of a constant process endless in the variety of its activities which yet so fit into one another as to constitute and maintain the unity of the whole. And not only does the kind of process express the nature of objects but the different objects are simply the different processes.
Unity of the universe due to the singleness of the process: one reality throughout all the diversity.
Now in the next place I would observe that the unity of the natural world or rather the unity of the world as not merely natural but—seeing it is relative to mind and exhibits itself in the activities of mind also spiritual—is due to the fundamental singleness of the process of the real. The ultimate reality is one: the process which that reality is is one. There is one universe because there is one process at all stages of complexity: one reality revealing itself in the endless variety of activities. Modern science is no doubt less dogmatic in many ways than it was in the past. It is more ready to say simply “I do not know.” But on the other hand it is becoming more confident of the unity of the real; and it no longer resists the view that as Edward Caird used to express “the world comes into self-consciousness in man.” We cannot always see how the elements of the real are fitted into each other—or why the marvel of harmony should arise from a variety of separate notes—but we can see how the elements lose meaning and reality when they are separated and we feel when the music stops.
Different view of that reality.
The religious view.
The nature of the world-energy that breaks out into the processes which at different levels the physicist the biologist the psychologist and the student of human history observe is liable to be defined in accordance with the special province of the scientific man's enquiry. To the physicist it is apt to be physical energy always in process of measurable transmutation—so long at least as you omit mind. To the biologist the pristine and universal energy is likely to appear as life; it is a vital force. To the psychologist it is mind. But no conception of the world-energy can satisfy the religious spirit or the philosophic except that which reveals itself in spiritual activities. The whole enterprise of the real must be simply the achievement of all the conditions of the amplest moral goodness. The religious spirit identifies this fundamental ever operative universal energy with God—the Christian religion pre-eminently with a God who is Love. Philosophy finds it to be the active energy of a rational perfection which includes with moral goodness beauty and truth. To both alike it is universal immanent and active in all that happens and it is perfect. The God of religion is the same as the Absolute of philosophy; and for both alike the universe in the last resort is the scene of a self-manifesting perfection.
What then of evil? We can postpone the difficulty no longer and I trust that we have now reached a point of view from which it can be dealt with.
The problem of moral evil.
The problem is that of moral evil. That of natural evil is relatively easy. All that is natural is but means of the spiritual and its value whether positive or negative is as we have found both derived or secondary and conditional. We do not as a matter of fact know whether a man's bad health or other natural evil may not be the most priceless element in his life. It may be conducive as nothing else could be to his spiritual good.
Finality of moral evil.
But moral evil—to restate the point at which our argument had arrived—has a certain finality of character just as moral good has. We cannot revalue it in the light of something else. Its value is intrinsic and negative. A bad act stands condemned at a court from which there is no appeal. It appears as a final flaw in the scheme of things; as something that ought not to have taken place but having taken place remains unredeemed even if forgiven.
Conclusions as to the divine being drawn therefrom.
The conclusion usually drawn from this final character of spiritual evil a conclusion which looks inevitable is that God is imperfect. He is either responsible for the scheme of things that includes evil or he is not. The latter alternative obviously implies that he is a finite being; the former that he either cannot or will not exclude evil from the scheme and express himself in a flawless universe. Both alternatives alike deprive God of his perfection and in fact stultify the conception upon the truth of which religion depends.
The possibility of moral evil is a condition of the moral life and therefore of the best possible world.
But another conclusion is possible. Let it be granted that moral evil is final and unalterable if the world is to serve the spiritual process whereby man attains moral goodness the possibility of doing what is morally wrong must remain. The world we have said is the manifestation of a never-resting process which is spiritual. Every act is a step or stage in this process and it acquires its value there-from. That which is ultimate operates in it; but it operates in man in such a way as to permit the possibility of moral choice and therefore of moral evil. A world that excluded this possibility would not be the best indeed it would not be spiritual at all. But granted that such a world is best then it justifies what is incidental to it.
This argument may perhaps be put more simply thus. God has called into being the best possible world: the best possible world is a world in which the conditions of moral choice and therefore of moral evil exist: moral evil is thus justified in the sense that its possibility is necessary as a condition of what is best.
But the “best possible” world seems most imperfect.
But the objection to this view seems obvious and fatal. The best world is not a perfect world. The flaw we are told remains; the fact that the possibility of evil must remain if morality is to remain does not justify the evil which is done. If that possibility were never or seldom realized; if men always or generally chose the right when they might have chosen what is wrong criticism might be silenced. But alas who can look either into himself or out upon the world without recognizing the presence of evil its terrible power the variety of its forms its mercilessness and its inexhaustible resources? It is only by a flight from such a vision that a good man who pities his fellows can renew his faith in the goodness of God. The argument it is insisted leaves us with our problem unsolved in our hands. It means simply that this most imperfect world is the best possible: God could do no better.
The demand for a better than the best possible is irrational.
Before admitting this sceptical conclusion it were well to examine some of the conceptions that are employed. And first what is to be said of the distinction between the best possible and the perfect? A better than the perfect is neither possible nor desirable; neither is a better than the best possible. Are they then not “one and the same”? And is not the demand for a world that is better than the best possible an irrational demand? It is certainly a demand for that which cannot be at all. It is in truth a demand for an empty and meaningless non-entity. The impossible is that the conditions of whose existence do not themselves exist. The conditions are not only not real but they would be incompatible with those which are real. The demand for a better than the best possible world being irrational ought not to be made or if made heeded.
Nor does perfect power imply the power to bring about the impossible.
Now the demand for a world in which wrong-doing is not possible has all these characteristics. It is not only a demand for that whose conditions do not exist but for that whose conditions would be inconsistent with what is deemed best—namely the process of the moral life the spiritual enterprise. It is no proof of either power or wisdom not to bring about the self-contradictory. God is not imperfect nor is his power limited because he cannot bring about that which contradicts itself. That were to do and undo at once.
The only moral evil is the evil that seems to arrest the process of attaining goodness.
It is evident that the value of the whole argument which is advanced depends upon the idea which is entertained of perfection. Is a perfect world a world in which nothing ought to be that is not; or in which no change is either desirable or possible? Then “our world” is manifestly once for all most imperfect. Such a static world however we have said cannot be spiritual in character nor give man the opportunity of learning and practising goodness. But the learning and practising of goodness the active willing and doing of what is right is we maintain the best life possible for man; and the world which most favours this end or which invites these activities calling upon man with the voice of Duty is the best world. In a Word the perfect world is dynamic: the scene of the Working of the good. Hence evil the only final evil would be that which arrested this process. Accordingly the question now before us is whether moral evil as we know it in ourselves and others does arrest this process or is itself overcome and in the last resort constrained to enter into the service of the good.
This question is a question of fact. Is it a fact that moral evil is a fixed finality or does it when it comes full round destroy itself leaving behind it distrust of itself and incentives to another way of life?
Has the evil we know that character?
Good and evil are not facts but estimates of facts.
This question is often put in a way that permits only one answer. Evil is assumed to be something objective and real standing over against another objective and real fact that we call the good. But neither evil nor good exists in this sense. They are characteristics of what is real but not themselves separate realities. In short moral good and moral evil are ways in which the will operates characteristics of man's aims and efforts. They are evaluations or estimates of facts true or false; and they exist only when and as long as the process of willing goes on.
Good and evil are the right and wrong process of volition.
The question of the permanence of evil becomes thus the question of the permanence of evil volitions or of the succession of human beings who perform bad actions. At first sight at least there seems to be but one answer to it. There is no lack of evidence of unrepentant bad wills. Men not only do not give up their evil ways but they become less and less capable of doing so. Their enslavement so far as our observation goes becomes more and more hopeless. Nor must it be forgotten that one genuine instance of a will that remains unalterably evil—a will that like Milton's Satan makes evil its good—would destroy the hypothesis of divine perfection on which religion rests. That instance would mean that the limits of the goodness or power of God had been reached and that they had been found inadequate. It were the defeat of the will of a God who is Love.
Can such an instance be produced? Or is this once more not a case in which scepticism (or at least doubt) is apt to be hasty and to take not-proven for disproved? Has the hypothesis failed or has it merely not been found true in such cases because observation has been incomplete?
Only such demands to be made as are made in a scientific enquiry.
It seems to me that the religious man can claim for his hypothesis the same trust as we accord to science. He can claim the right to suspend judgment on the ground that the evidence is not complete. He can cling to his hypothesis as a hypothesis or as a possible and sane general law if he can produce instances in which it appears to hold. We admit the universality of the laws of nature although there are endless instances in which we cannot trace their operation; we can admit the universality of the operation of the divine will without asking for any further concessions.
In the first place our observation of moral facts is demonstrably incomplete. We no doubt call certain cases hopeless. The man's persistent evil ways are manifestly destroying him and he “dies in his sins” But can anyone be certain that matters end so? Can it be that his demonstration of the ugliness and barrenness of evil-doing has been on the whole a gain to the world; arid is the real result of his life—now let us say finally extinguished—a warning against evil and a strengthening of the resolve towards goodness? In that case although the individual has been deleted his life so far from arresting the spiritual process has strengthened it.
Does death end all?
It may have strengthened the process in others I imagine the critic replies; but his own life “taken as it stands” remains a blot and a blur and a final failure of God's goodness. I admit the validity of the inference if the premisses on which it rests are true. The failure is assumed to be final because it is assumed that death ends matters. But does it? If so if a man's whole career ends with death then I cannot justify the existence and destiny of that man nor retain my religious faith. For I consider it is not enough that his blundering life should be a gain to others. The individual himself must come out victor. But who is entitled to affirm that death ends all? Browning conjectured that Death might flash the truth on Guido as the lightning at blackest night revealed Naples—for an instant.
“So may the truth be flashed out by one blow
And Guido see one instant and be saved.
Else I avert my face not follow him
Into that sad obscure sequestered state
Where God unmakes but to remake the soul
He else made first in vain; which must not be.”1
It is a choice of conjectures or of hypotheses; and to me as to Browning the hypothesis of the ultimate failure of Divine Power and Goodness is more improbable than that of human life continued after death. The merely natural arena of this short fragile changing restless life seems to me to be too small to decide issues that are moral and the destiny of beings whose nature is spiritual. Death may be a mere incident in their history a natural event and nothing more; and a quite different kind of environment may be necessary to elicit and give play to the possibilities of spirit.
But I must leave aside the problem of immortality for the present and merely deny the right to assume the finality of death and the consequent failure of the divine purpose.
Repentance and victory over moral evil.
So far we have referred only to the cases in which the bad will is persistent and the evil ways last till the life that follows them sinks below the horizon out of our sight. But what is to be said of those other human lives in which we cannot but discern a complete change—sorrow and bitter repentance for the past a rededication for the future? There the evil is not only overcome and deleted but made into a stepping-stone of the new life. Its deceptiveness and falsity have been exposed. It is not possible to deny that both men and nations learn thoroughly only when they learn through experience. Indeed we are often tempted to believe that nothing less than the bitterness of the unworthy life can convince man of the wrong he is doing his rational nature by his pursuit of bad purposes.
Now this fact throws light upon the nature of moral evil. Left to work itself out and ripen it will prove to be self-contradictory and ultimately self-deleting. The rational nature the law of whose activities is to seek to realize what it values as good finds in evil a false good. Evil never tempted anyone unless it disguised itself. Man has never willed to bring about what he recognizes as dead loss. The nature of evil is thus to make itself impossible. Not only is moral evil capable of being overcome and of being supplanted by the opposite good it is converted into it. The impulse towards what is wrong is turned into distrust and hatred of that wrong and into a desire to serve the right more faithfully. The same passions and powers are turned to an opposite purpose. Moral evil can thus be turned completely against itself; and this truth as to the nature of evil remains though the change may occur only rarely.
The good cannot be turned against itself.
There is neither hazard nor hardship in following the good.
At first sight the good may seem to be capable of being defeated in the same way. But this is not the case. No doubt the good purpose is often frustrated and the good act often seems to leave things as they were. But the moral effect of the volition and the deed are not lost upon the doer. He has gained by his resolve and is the better man for his effort. Never does the moral good fail. Far less does it negate itself disappointing the agent who does the good act by proving empty or delusory. And this is one of the main grounds why the emphasis thrown upon the hazard and hardship of the moral life is misleading. There is present in every good a necessity that cannot be turned aside or overcome. It is that good results shall follow efforts after the good; that character is built up; that there is positive moral advance on the part of the agent. In a sense there is neither hazard nor hardship. The moral gain is certain. It is inevitable. All the powers of darkness resist it in vain. And unless the standard of value is wrong no hardship can be affirmed in learning goodness any more than in any other progressive effort. The difficulty of doing what is right may be real and very great but the attempt is a joy. I cannot pity anyone for trying to be good however “arduous” and unrelenting “reality” may be.
It is in this invincible positive character of moral good that the contrast between good and evil or rather between the good and the bad man is most manifest. The good man acts more and more consistently with his own rational nature and in accordance with the scheme to which he belongs. He goes from strength to strength; and that the conditions of permanent well-being are at his back becomes more and more conclusively evident. But evil tends to wipe itself out—to demonstrate its futility. Some kinds of ill-conduct destroy the physical conditions of life. The putrescence in other cases seems confined to the soul—whose sympathies become sluggish and whose ends become ever narrower and meaner and more selfish.
Evil condemns itself and to overcome it is not to justify it.
Moral evil or wrong-doing is the wrong use of gifts that are good. It is a turning of them against themselves. And the fact that it is thus intrinsically self-contradictory so far from justifying it leaves it self-condemned. It is never justified. When by its failure it warns when having learnt its lesson a nation or an individual devotes itself with new resolve to good ends the evil the perverse activity of the bad will has already passed away.
If the difficulties of religious faith are to be met it is not by denying the reality or lessening the significance of evil but by comprehending its nature. In its own negative fashion by its own self-contradictoriness evil also bears witness to the divine government of the world—a government which permits and sustains and in the end furnishes the force that declares itself in the spiritual enterprise of mankind. It is not an easy optimism that can maintain the final triumph of what is best. On the contrary it is the conception of a will which by making the well-being of mankind its end has challenged all the powers of evil.
Our own nature's bent is towards goodness: it is only beings endowed richly endowed that is to say with the gifts of the spirit that can do what is morally right or wrong. To be able to err and do wrong is a trust and responsibility beyond the reach of the animal; and the world in which man is called upon and given the opportunity of using his gifts supports and rewards their right use and puts obstacles in the way of the evil-doer by exposing the ruinous folly of his ways of life. The world in its own way shows that the purposes of God are those of a Love that is perfect and although they are not always seen to triumph in the lives of men they are never seen defeated. Never has anyone been sorry for having tried to do what seemed right or mourned over his attempted obedience to the will of God. If it cannot be said that
it may be maintained that
“There shall never be one lost good! What was shall live as before”;
and it may even be added that
“What was good shall be good with for evil so much good more.”
“All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist;
Not its semblance but itself; no beauty nor good nor power
Whose voice has gone forth but each survives for the melodist
When eternity affirms the conception of an hour.”2
That the power and love of God are unlimited remains after every test the most reasonable and probable hypothesis.

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